Ardeola 63(2) pp.417-418, 2016

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Ardeola 63(2), 2016

WINKLER, D. W., BILLERMAN, S. M. & LOVETTE, I. J. 2015. Bird families of the world: an invitation to the spectacular diversity of birds. Lynx Edicions. Barce­lona. 599 p. ISBN: 978­84­941892­0­3.

This is a very attractive, authoritative and up­ to­ date presentation of the world’s bird families, which I highly recommend to any­body interested in birds.

It begins with chapters explaining, e.g., how phylogenetic trees should be interpreted, the meaning and challenges of classification of higher ranks (such as families), and a com­parison of the different avifaunal regions (Palearctic, Oriental, etc.). These chapters are very clearly written and nicely illustrated with phylogenetic trees and maps, and will prove highly enlightening to anybody with a budding interest in bird systematics and biogeography.

After a chapter on “Using this book” follows a two page chapter, written by Jon Fjeldså and co­authors, which formally pro­poses three new family names: Chaetopidae, Hylocitreidae and Modulatricidae.

The bulk of the book consists of the fami­ly descriptions. These are arranged under the following headings: “Related Families”, which lists the closest relatives; “Similar Birds”, which lists other families with similar looking species; a short “Description” of general characteristics; “Habitat”; “Food”;“Breeding”; “Conservation”; and “Relation­ships”. There is also a “grey box” with some loosely written “fun facts”, which are in­tended to stimulate more in depth reading.

It is admittedly not easy to characterize families with strikingly different­ looking genera/species, such as the Macrosphenidae. Accordingly, in some cases these texts maybe of doubtful value. However, in other cases I would have liked a bit more detail, such as the number of remiges and rectrices, at least for the passerines.

The sequence in which the families are presented, and the delimitation of the same, are based on the most recently published, mostly DNA­ based, literature (up through December 2014!). As explained in the intro­duction, the tips of the branches in phylo­genetic trees (families in this case) can be arranged in multiple ways in a list, and the circumscriptions of orders, families and genera are subjective (personally, I prefer larger genera than the authors, but that is entirely a matter of taste).As stressed by the authors, phylogenetic trees and classifica­tions based on these should be viewed as hypotheses, which often change in the light of new data. Personally, I would have wished o see more phylogenetic trees in the book. I would also have liked more discussions in the text about morphological supportfor certain groupings (e.g., that the species in the sister subfamilies Cettiinae and Scoto­cercinae in the family Scotocercidae have10 rectrices [or fewer in Tesia], unlike mostother passerines, which have 12 [though Pholidornis and Hylia, which the authors place in Cettiinae, though acknowledging that their relationships are uncertain, have12 – an indication that they probably don’t belong there]).

The “Relationships” sections present various recent (and a few older) hypotheses about the closest relatives of the families in question, but do not discuss relationships within the families. These are the only sec­tions in the descriptions which have cita­tions to the literature, “because very little if any of this information can be considered common knowledge, and it is being updated constantly”. This approach highlights the uncertainty in the classifications, and em­phasizes that different hypotheses often con­tradict each other. However, unfortunately (in my opinion) the authors generally do not state whether a certain study is based exclu­sively on mitochondrial DNA or multiple independent genes, whether the taxon sam­pling is sparse or dense, or whether the support for various clades is strong or poor. Accordingly, it is generally not possible to judge which hypotheses are best supported. In any case, these are excellent summaries of the present state of knowledge.

Although the circumscriptions of the families are based on the most recent re­search, it would have been good to highlight genera which have “jumped” from one fami­ly to another, e.g. Malia and Robsonius from Timaliidae sensu lato (in the broad, old, sense) to Locustellidae, Laticilla and Graminicola from Sylviidae sensu lato (former in Prinia) to Pellorneidae, and Rhopophilus from the “warbler” Sylviidae sensu lato to the “babbler” Sylviidae sensu stricto (in the narrow, modern, sense). Also, I haven’t found any statement about whether the circumscriptions of genera represent anew classification or follow some other taxo­nomic list (it seems to match the latest Howard & Moore checklist closely, although I haven’t compared them directly); e.g. why is Poodytes recognised as a genus separate from Megalurus? These minor shortcomings may be a consequence of space constraints.

The family chapters are richly illustrated, with paintings of representatives of all genera, taken from the Handbook of the Birds of the World, and generally superb photos, as well as a distribution map for the family as a whole. The illustrations provide an excellent exposé of the diversity and beauty of birds, and will surely spark a de­sire in many birders to travel the world to see these birds.

The different orders also have separate chapters, which briefly describe how the different families are related to each other. The inside of the front and back covers have nice and very useful overviews of the families, with one illustration per family and the number of genera and species in the family and the page number on which the family account begins.

In summary, this is a marvellous book, which is a great joy to look through, and which will prove highly educational for most people interested in birds in general. I can warmly recommend it.